Canada

Identity thieves cashing in on Canadians' info online, police warn

Criminal organizations are cashing in on lucrative but low-risk identity theft as Canadians increasingly put personal information in the public realm, law enforcement agencies warned Friday.

Criminal organizations are cashing in on lucrative but low-risk identity theft as Canadians increasingly put personal information in the public realm, law enforcement agencies warned Friday.

"As we move more and more to the internet and technology being used, the risks are increasing, and I think that a lot of the public are not very careful about their identity," RCMP Commissioner William Elliott said.

The collection and trafficking of personal information brings in big profits for organized criminal groups, with little possibility of detection and prosecution, warns the 2008 annual report from Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, a network for exchanging information on organized crime that includes about 400 law enforcement agencies .

Lower-level criminal groups are typically involved in collection and trafficking of personal information while higher-level groups use the data to commit crimes, the report says.

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'The damage identity theft does to society in general and old people is enormous.'

-Alastair Berry

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In 2007, the Canadian Anti-fraud Call Centre reported 10,366 complaints of identity theft and identity fraud, with losses totalling more than $6 million. The centre estimates that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Middle-aged victims between the ages of  35 and 54 are most affected by credit or debit card fraud or theft, the 45-page report says.

But young people look to become a new target group for thieves as they share a "vast amount of personal information" on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace and other online communities.

In the U.S., there are already a growing number of victims younger than 18, according to the 2007 U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

"It's a bit of a sign of the times," said Elliott, noting a move to internet banking, telephone transactions and sharing data online.  

"We provide information that would previously be looked upon as private through things such as Facebook," said Elliott.

"As the environment changes, criminals and criminal groups find new ways to exploit those possibilities."

The report warns that individuals often do not learn immediately that their personal information has been stolen, with organizations holding the data for years before making use of it.

The majority of identity theft and fraud incidents are reported in B.C., Ontario and Quebec, with some criminals specializing in specific aspects such as creating identity profiles or manufacturing fraudulent identification.

Other identity theft techniques used by criminals include "brand spoofing" through fake business websites, e-mail scams and voice phishing, which prompts people to call a phone number that seems legitimate.

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